Do you ever come across an idea so simple yet effective that you wonder: “Why didn’t I think of that?” The Red Light/Green Light game is that idea for me. During the summer when many of the young viola students whom I had started were reaching middle school and were starting to take more ownership of their own practicing, I was looking for ways to help them to practice more effectively to solve problems, rather than just repeat passages mindlessly. Enter my Violin Book 3 training course with the wonderful Joanne Melvin. She had devised a genius little trick to encourage self-reflection in her students. Up to that point, I would try to ask my students questions about how they had played, but I have found this game to be a much more succinct and specific version of those conversations. My students have since become much better practicers because of this game and I hope you will enjoy it as well.
Here are the steps to the Red Light/Green Light Game:
Step 1: Identify one point the student is to focus on such as keeping the bow in the highway or playing all the Low 2nd fingers in tune. Keeping it down to one point is critical so the student doesn’t become overloaded.
Step 2: Set a clear guideline for how the student will know if their playthrough was green light-worthy, being as specific as possible. I will often say something like:
“Green light means that your bow stayed in the highway the whole time you were playing. Red light means the bow slid out of the highway, even for just one note.” There is no possibility of a yellow light, because the system is meant to be binary and simple. The bow is either in the highway the whole time or it is not. The 2nd fingers were either in tune or they were not.
Step 3: Set a clear parameter for where the student will stop in the music to check. Depending on the task and the piece, this may be at the end of each measure, each phrase, each line, or some other relatively small chunk. Often students who are just learning the game will play past the stopping point, and may need a bit of reminding or may need to mark a stopping point in the actual music, if they are using the music. It is very helpful if the student has already learned to recognize phrase endings by ear to find natural stopping points in the music.
Step 4: Practice the game in the lesson. After reminding the student of the two parameters, I will have them practice the passage with the stops and tell me if they think they got a red light or a green light. If they get a green light, they get to move on, and if they get a red light, they have to repeat that section until they get a green light.
Benefits of the Game
Students who regularly play red light/green light start to learn that efficient practice often involves playing small sections over and over, rather than running the whole piece at once. Because the goal of the game is to get a green light by accomplishing some specific goal, the emphasis is shifted from “play this 10x” to “accomplish this goal”, which in addition to being a more effective practice strategy, is more rewarding for students because they will feel they are getting somewhere.
If the student keeps repeating a section and can’t get a green light, then I know that the task must be further broken down to ensure success or perhaps I need to explain the goal in a different way. Sometimes hitting a wall without a green light can lead to a productive discussion about breaking the passage down into smaller parts. I try to help lead the student into their own problem-solving rather than jumping in to fix things myself because the overall goal is that students become more self-aware and able to solve their own problems.
If the student and I (or the student and the parent) disagree about whether a section was a green light, then we need to discuss again what makes a playthrough green light-worthy and how the student will be able to tell. Using the example of the bow not staying in the highway, if a student says they got a green light but I disagree, I will ask “How can you tell for yourself whether the bow is in the highway?” Some good answers are that the student can see if the bow is in the highway, can hear the strong tone, or can feel the bow staying in the same spot. If we agree on that, but in the next playthrough, the student isn’t watching the bow, I can then ask “How do you know if the bow was in the highway if you weren’t looking at the bow?” Most students underestimate the kind of sustained attention that is necessary to fix a habit and must be encouraged to persevere in watching, listening, or attending to whatever detail is the focus of the game.
When dealing with struggles between students and parents, I will often suggest the parent takes a picture or a video so that there is an external judge for the green light. After just a few times of watching a video of themselves not playing in the highway, most students will begin to trust their practice parent’s judgment. I don’t often use tuners, but for arguments over intonation, a parent could have the student play slowly using an app such as ClearTune, so they can see clearly when they have played an incorrect note. Another method could be using an app to slow down the recording and having the student play along. If a note is very out of tune, it will be immediately obvious when playing with the recording. Obviously, if the student is playing this game with the parent, it is vital that the parent be very clear on what is green light-worthy and that they are not adding other requirements onto the green light. One point at a time allows for good focus!
Using the words red light and green light, instead of right or wrong keeps this process objective and takes away the language of failure and negativity that some tweens and teens especially struggle with. Some students even appreciate a visual for their red light/green light practice, such as this traffic lights app or even a simple traffic light cut out from construction paper. It’s easy to build in repetitions to this game once students get the hang of it. For example, for a particularly challenging measure, I may ask a student to see if they can get 5 green lights in a row every day. That way I know they are engaging in the kind of deliberate practice that leads to improved technique, not just well-meaning repetition for the sake of repetition. After the student has played the red light/green light game for a few weeks in lessons, I only need to draw a simple sketch of a traffic light and the words “green light=” in their lesson notes.
The red light/green light game has been a fun and helpful addition to my teaching studio and I hope you enjoy it too! Below is a favorite quote from Shinichi Suzuki on the importance of self-evaluation. Dr. Suzuki was constantly revising, improving and adding to his method and as music practicers, we should all be striving towards greater practice efficiency and joyful music-making.